COHN: Verdict on Harbaugh's season hangs in balance

  • San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh speaks during an NFL football news conference at the team's training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. The 49ers are scheduled to play the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game Sunday in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

There is so much at stake for Jim Harbaugh today. Every week, there is so much at stake for his reputation and his standing among NFL coaches.

Those statements probably seem hard to believe. He's already shown he's the boy wonder as coach — although, he's not such a boy anymore. What possibly could be at stake for him today in the NFC championship game against the Falcons?

Just this. If Harbaugh loses, he didn't make progress from his first season. He got to the exact same spot and stopped dead. See you later, Jim. Have an enjoyable offseason.

If he loses, people will notice some stuff. Like: He didn't win as many games as his first year. You could look that up right now. And: He couldn't fix the startling/disturbing pattern his team established this season.

Win two games in a row and then don't win the third game — the tie with the Rams was not a loss but it was not a win. This pattern has repeated itself five times this season.

Today's game against the Falcons is a third game. The 49ers won their previous two and that should be good, but if history is a guide, it also could be very bad.

The win-win-not-win pattern is all about coaching. It is about nothing else. It is impossible to know why this pattern exists or, if over the long haul, it really is a pattern, but here's a tentative hypothesis and it's all about Harbaugh.

The team gets too high on itself after two wins and then crashes in the third game. We're talking extreme highs and lows. The best coaches are emotionally stable — think Joe Gibbs — but it's possible Harbaugh is an up-and-down person, and the team mirrors his high and lows. If the Niners lose to the Falcons, it would be the sixth time this pattern asserted itself.

When the Seahawks lost to the Falcons last week, everyone pointed the finger at Pete Carroll, with good reason. The same applies here. The 49ers have six Pro Bowlers on defense, plus a potential Hall of Fame running back, a wide receiver who is clearly one of the best, a great tight end who has been a Pro Bowler and a quarterback who is the talk of the nation. The Niners are vastly superior to the Falcons, who are a weak first seed, almost a joke if you trust the national media. They are made to order for the 49ers.

If the Niners lose, they will have been beaten by an inferior team for the fifth time this season. Harbaugh surely will take the blame — should take the blame. Maybe you're thinking Harbaugh is flop-proof. Look at Rex Ryan's record. He took the Jets to the AFC championship game his first two seasons. Where is he now?

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